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The Foundations of Modernity: Readings in Early Modern Philosophy

Lecturer: Martin Black

Originally Taught: Winter School 2012

Modern life is essentially characterized by progressive science on the one hand and by political institutions devoted to individual freedom or rights on the other. The coordinated arguments for these two features were the core of the modern Enlightenment, founded in fifteenth through the seventeenth centuries in Europe. In this course we will discuss the central theses of the early modern philosophers, especially Machiavelli, Bacon, Descartes, Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, and Kant.

We now live in an age of globalization, or the universalization of the Enlightenment. This prospect is the cause of considerable controversy as well as hope. The problems we face might seem unique to our century; for example, global warming, the corporatization of all aspects of life, the levelling of cultural/political diversity, the replacement of all forms of rhetoric by a rhetoric of equality accompanied by gaping disparities in wealth, the devotion to technological progress accompanied by the neglect, coarsening, or elimination of literary, artistic, and political culture, the intrusion of the state on daily life in the name of security, etc. However, these problems devolve from the intellectual framework of the early modern philosophy. We now refer to technology rather than science, and to modernity rather than Enlightenment, which are signs of a broadening recognition of the problematic character of the modern project. Such unease has been the staple of intellectual life for past couple of centuries; however, to understand our current dilemmas we must re-examine the early modern philosophers because their later critics have based their attacks upon the edifice—the new understanding of nature, science, and politics—which they erected.

Early modern philosophy proposes a new “project” (a word given its modern use especially by Bacon and Descartes). This term reflects the replacement of the theoretical intentions of the philosophical tradition with the practical and productive aims of the moderns. Since the modern project sought to establish its legitimacy by a critique of the scholastic synthesis of Aristotle and Christian theology, we will need to glance at some of the chief tenets of this tradition.

The two elements of the modern project mentioned above, the political and scientific, are united in their opposition to the Aristotelian teaching that a natural being has a proper end and form by nature. Machiavelli makes the first modern proclamation for a new science of human beings that looks to the “effectual truth,” or to what human beings actually are and do, rather than to their imagined ends or perfections. What Machiavelli accomplished on the political plane was accomplished on the scientific and metaphysical planes by Bacon and Descartes. If we consider all natural beings to lack innate forms or ends, science can be remodeled upon the practical or productive “arts” (such as house-building or clock-making). This model is intended to ensure the infinite progress of philosophy or science.

More importantly, in the absence of any natural principles to contemplate, it becomes more plausible to assert that the end of all knowledge or science is to extend the power of human beings over nature, including human nature. Science is no longer the understanding of the diversity of beings, but of the modeling or projection of universal natural laws that measure the motion of matter in space. The mathematical basis of such laws precludes the uncertainty associated with our judgments about the ends to which we should use our knowledge.

This scientific and metaphysical emphasis on a conception of nature abstracted from the particular nature of the things we experience is coordinated with the new political proposal that the human being is not by nature political. The traditional teaching implied that laws and customs were deficient but irreplaceable beginning points for coming to understand our true ends or happiness by nature, from which standpoint we can reform our practices. In the absence of such natural standards of action, political life could be understood to be instrumental to our natural rights. The advantages of such a teaching are obvious, but it also implies, among other things, that our relations with others, and all of our cultural achievements or customs, are in turn reduced to an instrumental status.

The main problem the early moderns faced was how to understand the character and worth of their own project: if genuine knowledge is expressed in mathematical laws, then one could never achieve self-knowledge and science cannot justify itself. For reasons like this, there are now concerns in analytical philosophy about the meaning of natural laws, and concerns in continental philosophy about the Enlightenment construction of knowledge as a tool of power. But the early moderns were more aware than later thinkers of these problems. We are only now becoming consciousness of the problems they posed through their attempt to depict a commensurability of the lives of scientist and citizen. The dislocation between science and life we now experience are expressions of the order of knowledge and politics laid out in their texts.

Course Schedule:
Monday: Introduction; the contemporary problem of science and philosophy; the Aristotelian and Scholastic background to the early moderns; the political revolution
  • Reading: Excerpts from Machiavelli’s Prince, Hobbes’s On Human Nature, Aristotle, and Aquinas
Tuesday: The scientific revolution, part one: Bacon and Descartes on the priority of method and the genuine causes of nature
  • Reading: Excerpts from Bacon’s New Organon and Descartes’ Regulae, Discourse on Method and Meditations
Wednesday: The scientific revolution, part two: Bacon and Descartes on the ends of science
  • Reading: The New Organon I.129, The Discourse on Method esp. Part 6, and the Meditations, Part 6
Thursday: The basis of human rights and the rightful inequality of property
  • Reading: Excerpts from Locke’s Second Treatise and from Rousseau’s Discourse on Inequality
Friday: The dilemmas of the modern individual’s private sentiment, corrupt politics, universal science, and endless abstract and universal moralizing
  • Reading: Excerpts from Rousseau’s Discourse on the Origin of Inequality and Kant’s essay on theory and practice

Readings:A reader of the passages to be discussed closely will be made available through the course website in PDF form in June.

Difficulty: Introductory to Intermediate. No prior study of these texts is presumed, but reading the appropriate texts before each meeting will be helpful.